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Oregon lawmakers call for oversight of universities’ handling of sexual and racial harassment complaints on campuses

UPDATED: Wed., May 5, 2021

By Maxine Bernstein The Oregonian

A bipartisan group of Oregon lawmakers spoke out Wednesday on the need to hold Oregon universities accountable for their handling of sexual or racial harassment complaints on their campuses.

They’ve proposed a Senate resolution that would establish an eight-member Joint Committee on Respectful and Safe University Campuses.

The oversight committee would hold public hearings with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents in order to study policies, practices and the culture of certain higher education campuses and work to prevent and respond to allegations of sexual and racial harassment, discrimination and misconduct.

The committee could also appoint independent investigators to audit certain institutions.

The move comes in the wake of Oregon Health and Science University’s $585,000 payout to settle a federal sexual assault suit filed by a social worker who accused the university of failing to act after she and others complained of sexual harassment by a second-year anesthesiology resident, Dr. Jason Campbell, who became known as the TikTok Doc for viral social media videos dancing in hospital scrubs during the pandemic.

An internal investigation concluded Campbell violated OHSU’s harassment policy and code of conduct, but Campbell left before a scheduled discipline hearing, only to obtain a residency at a university in Florida. He was placed on leave from that job in February.

The legislative push also comes amid the abrupt firing of tenured Linfield University English Prof. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a faculty trustee who had spoken out against the university’s handling of sexual harassment complaints made by students and faculty against four university board members. He had sought restrictions on trustees’ social gatherings with students and called for more training of trustees. One former trustee has pleaded not guilty to sexual abuse charges stemming from his encounters with three students in 2017 and 2019. Linfield President Miles K. Davis said Pollack-Pelzner was fired “for cause,” and argued that the university did not have to follow its faculty handbook, which spells out a process for disciplining a tenured professor involving a notice of charges followed by a faculty committee hearing.

“Recent allegations on Oregon’s campuses underscores that the Legislature has not done enough to hold our universities accountable. The Legislature’s oversight in this area is much needed so we can understand how to protect victims of harassment. The public deserves to know how their tax dollars are being spent in this area,” said Sen. Kim Thatcher, R- Keizer, the author of the resolution introduced Wednesday.

Thatcher said she had concerns, for example, about OHSU’s selection of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at the rate of more than $2,000 an hour to examine the medical school’s handling of sexual misconduct and discrimination complaints.

The Legislature needs to pay special attention when there’s allegations that sexual assault or harassment allegations at universities “are seemingly ignored or possibly not being taken seriously,” or a university is not following its own policies, Thatcher said.

When taxpayers’ dollars are being spent “hiring expensive lawyers,” she added, “we need to get to the root cause.”

State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, another chief sponsor, said the legislation would allow lawmakers to better understand how Oregon’s universities are responding to complaints of racial or sexual harassment.

“This will help make sure we’re not hiding these difficult conversations in dark corners,” Gelser said.

Gelser cited a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit filed in March by the former Oregon State University’s dean of the College of Pharmacy against the school and its then-provost Edward Feser, now interim president. The former pharmacy college dean Grace Kuo alleges in the suit that she was removed from the dean position in December, after alumni and others had complained to the university once she had demoted an executive associate dean of the college who students had complained failed to adequately respond to their complaints related to discrimination, “bias toward students who speak English with an accent” and sexual harassment. Kuo was stripped of the dean’s role and is now a tenured professor at the school.

“We have an obligation to make sure that all of our public institutions, all of our taxpayer-funded institutions, are open and transparent and are doing everything that they can to have safe and respectful cultures,” Gelser said.

The joint legislative committee would be made up of four members from the state Senate and four members from the House of Representatives. They’d be appointed no later than 15 days following the resolution’s adoption, it says. Lawmakers’ oversight would be restricted to public colleges and universities in the state.

Joining Thatcher and Gelser as chief sponsors of the resolution are Sen. Kayse Jama, D- Portland; and Reps. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, and Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said he supports the proposal as a regular sponsor and believes it needs to be approved this session because of “ongoing cases,” that he said he’s concerned won’t be dealt with in the appropriate way without the added oversight.

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